Rural Legend

In defense of dairy: Further discussion

I was very excited to have finally turned out an article that stirred the ag community pot a bit. The article was a response to the Washington Post article by former Wisconsin dairy farmer, Jim Goodman. You can read mine here. You’ll want to make sure you get through that before continuing so you stay in the loop. I knew that this, being on a somewhat sensitive subject, would receive mixed reviews and reactions. In fact, I got a pat on the back by some of my ag social media idols such as the Farm Babe – made my day for sure!

As I am still a bit of a young un and learning myself, I honestly did want to see what difference in insights and opinions this would kick up. Even for among those who disagreed, both thoughtfully and some laughably, this started some excellent conversations. Heck I learned a lot from so many different view-points! Here I wanted to completely gather my thoughts on the article’s reaction, as well as respond to some of the comments that I didn’t want to get into a Facebook battle over.

Before we dive in, a little disclaimer. Obviously, this is an opinion piece, some guys missed the memo on that one. A lot of people stressed the loss of small farms, of which I never denied. Some offended-ness stemmed from the fact that this article was in defense of larger farms and I didn’t credit enough of the small guys. Please remember, mine was in response to a very specific WaPo article, one that was very critical of different larger operations. Do note Mr. Goodman called out not just the true “mega-dairies” but those that milk “hundreds of cows” (many farms these days) in confinement. Because of that, I knew that these types of operations were the ones to be specifically spoken for as they are already so often the ones attacked in the media. This wasn’t intended to be a “bigger is better” type article though some guys wanted to make it out to be. Now onto the meat (or milk?) of it all…

From my fellow colleagues 

I love being a part of the dairy circles. Not only is this the industry of my current employment, dairymen have no shortage of thoughts and opinions. Watching those be expressed is great fun, if you’re into cows like I am. Among this crowd, I also got some mixed opinions, but much more constructive discussion than elsewhere in the Facebook wilderness. 

These people did give me some new perspectives that I wouldn’t have thought to look from. For example, some strongly agreed that the changing direction of the industry wasn’t necessarily a bad. For example, milking 25 cows was considered MASSIVE at one time. One commenter recalled their parents getting some flack when they moved to just 100 cows. How much of size is in the mindset and relative to the scale of economics? Food for thought.

Another comment pointed to that expansion to larger farmers and fewer of them as similar to any other industry. Agriculture, as was pointed out, isn’t as special as we think it is. At one point there were no restaurant chains, only small mom and pop places. Naturally agriculture production changes its system layout. Think of the vertical integration of our hog and poultry producers. 

One former dairyman felt Mr. Goodman’s pain, the story was all too familiar. But he, like myself and many others, picked up on the raw bitterness. And while he also had issues with the industry, one thing he couldn’t do was fight his fellow dairymen. I have the utmost respect for this farmer and so many others like him. 

From the rest of the Facebook wilderness

Now for the naysayers…I will not argue that I had many disagreeing comments with some excellent points or at least good food for thought. I stand by my personal opinion and my article 100%. Here are some of the recurring themes I felt worth addressing. 

Bigger is always worse

One of the recurring themes was a disdain for bigger operations, regardless of if they were family owned. A lot of these do come from the more natural-minded traditionalist agriculture crowd, of which the internet abounds. Agriculturalists of this mindset certainly have worthwhile perspectives to contribute. Do note that I really don’t want to see the industries turned into polarized sides. No one has any right or wrong answers in the grand scheme of things.

Some arguments were made that the bigger farms may be more efficient, but they have a much more questionable environmental impact. Let’s not forget, efficiency and environmental sustainability/protection go hand in hand! When we are inefficient, it means that we are using our given resources poorly; more than is necessary to get the job done. Specifically mentioned were things like manure management, water quality and fuel consumption. This is a great point, I may in fact do an entire article on this one.

In terms of manure management, everything is relative to the size of the operation. The more animals you have the more manure is obviously produced. But the more head you have, the more acreage you need to produce the crops to feed those animals. And the more acreage you are farming the more manure you’ll need to put those nutrients back into the ground. See a pattern here? This is how the nutrient cycle works. When animals eat the nutrients that come out of the ground (primarily N, P and K) they are also excreting them. When we spread manure, we are putting those things directly back where they belong. 

We also have great things like recycling sand lanes and water filtration systems. One commenter of a large dairy pointed out her operation will recycle water ten times before it is used to finally irrigate crops! This wouldn’t at all be possible if they were smaller. I am also of the school of thought that innovations such as methane digesters will be a huge solution to further enhance manure management and renewable energy. I’m surprised that this doesn’t get nearly the discussion nor funding that it deserves. (I have some conspiracy theories of my own on why this is, perhaps I’ll tell ya sometime!)

Fuel consumption could be a whole debate in and of itself. We have an entire industry dedicated to finding more renewable resources. Not to mention, I find fuel consumed for agricultural purposes much more useful than the excessive often unnecessary travels we are all guilty of to some extent. But let me give you this to chew on: let’s pretend all dairies couldn’t milk more than X number of cows. The national herd average, to feed the growing population, would still need to be fairly high just spread out more on smaller farms. It will take the same amount of growing and harvesting to feed those animals. Remember, we can’t get more land and with the rise of urbanization not everyone can be pasture-based. In this scenario, you could argue that we may end up using even more fuel because everyone has a different standard of efficiency. 

We could argue fuel consumption for milk shipping would be down, but that’s debatable. Milk has been crossing stateliness, even when there is plenty of local dairy, for quite some time. Honestly, I don’t know the numbers on this and it would be difficult to get an estimate. I’d certainly love to get this looked into!

 You aren’t qualified to speak on this

This one in particular got me more than a few laughs. Apparently, because I am not currently a farmer, my opinion isn’t as valid as Mr. Goodman’s. If I really cared and was really active, I would be milking cows of my own. Note: I have no desire to milk my own cattle, and if I did it certainly wouldn’t be organic or grass-fed. Basically, it wouldn’t be anything those already against conventional ag would support. Also, if you know anything about the current state of industry affairs, we certainly don’t need new dairies so I’m not sure how I’d be helping there.

This isn’t even worth addressing as an argument or even a valid remark. As anyone familiar with logic knows, this is a prime example of the ad hominemfallacy in all its glory. How many cows myself or anyone else milks has nothing to do with having an opinion, factual arguments or commentary on the industry. Likewise, when one becomes a farmer by either birth or financial success, your opinions and commentary on the industry don’t suddenly become gospel and more valid than your colleagues (i.e. other dairymen or industry professionals such as me). 

As I have already previously stated, I got lots of feedback from other dairymen who strongly agreed with my thoughts on the original article. Are they less valid? I listen to all the perspectives in the industry and form my own opinions from there. There are as many ways to dairy as there are dairymen, that one’s stuck with me. One’s personal opinion does not discredit the exact opposite opinions of another.

Now, while it certainly doesn’t add any more weight to personal thoughts, I am in fact a part of the dairy industry. My paycheck is contingent on the milk checks of farmers across the nation. (I work for a breed association as my full-time gig.) Likewise, there are many, many careers in the industry as I’ve talked about already elsewhere. And guess what? Not all of these crucial roles are filled by dairymen…and those individuals all have very strong opinions on the industry as well with different insights and experiences. This certainly makes myself, and other professionals like me, more than qualified to speak on such industry related topics. 

And no, I don’t consider myself to be any high authority on the be-all-end-all of all things dairy. My opinion isn’t more important than anyone else’s, nor did I ever claim it to be. This original article spoke its piece, I did mine.

Some went so far as to take offense at my use of the word “agvocate.” I’d like to make this clear: I don’t advocate for any one individual or any one agricultural practice. I advocate for the industry, and when I see the industry being roughed up (even from within) I am very compelled, heck even obligated, to speak. Sorry if my advocating covers more than your niche market or what farming practice you personally feel is best. But I stand with the entire industry, families of “mega-dairies” included. Had we been in an opposite situation and the big guys were talking down on the little guys, I’d have had just as much reason to write the response. 

Less credited major and valid points

I’m going to just punch these out briefly.

  1. Well when the wall is built these big dairies will be sorry because no one will be around to milk their cows.Firstly, this is extremely condescending to both the farmers and workers. Not all foreign workers are illegal, in fact many farms work very hard to vet their employees beforehand. Secondly, I am not even going to go into the politics of this because the people making these kinds of comments probably won’t like my opinions on Mr. Trump’s wall very much. Not to mention this is a total distraction from the discussion at hand. I could also interject here, with the rise of robots and more labor efficient technology, these concerns are likely to be somewhat mitigated as we move into the future.
  2. Big dairies don’t count as family dairies.I’m very shocked so many people still cling to the fact that because a small farms are going out, an entire industry is truly dying. My editor had some great analogies – we still get movies without Blockbuster and still travel without travel agents. And no one answered my initial question – why is agriculture the one industry where innovation and growth are frowned upon? In what other industry do we step backward and go back to doing things the hard way? Again, my heart aches to see so many good people forced out of the industry, and I wish there were a way to keep everyone in business. But I do look at the industries with a very healthy and sober does of realism.
  3. Bigger isn’t better.If you read my article, I never said it was. I simply pointed out that the industry is changing and the families who went bigger instead of getting out are hardly to blame. Likewise, I backed up the positives of having these dairies. Remember, smaller isn’t necessarily better either as Mr. Goodman very clearly implied. 
  4. Confinement is just bad.This was one of the points that I feel was coming more from the small-scale niche-based community. Actually, most all of these arguments you see above weren’t from the dairy community, it was more from those on the side against conventional ag. I’ve covered a lot of aspects to this already and how growing technology is making this easier to manage. Just because your animals are pastured doesn’t automatically equate to health.
  5. The original article fueled the fire of animal activists and hurt the overall industry.Another one that all my lovely commenters totally stepped over, this article was just fuel on the fire to the animal activists who are against any kid of agriculture, large conventional or small-scale niche market. This is huge! Just go scroll through the comment section of the original article and see for yourself.
  6. The big farms are out to control food supply and us along with it.Now I’m not one to be too trusting of the government, nor any individual for that matter. And I get it, food production is a serious issue. But what I don’t understand why are so many family businesses suddenly the enemy when they reach a certain point? A lot of folks are aghast to vertical integration, as what happened in the hog and poultry industries. I can understand some of the concern, but what we fail to acknowledge are the perks that these kinds of extensive management systems can do. We get a consistent safe product, farmers have a guaranteed buyer, there is less risk among other things. Some folks liken it to feudalism. Eh, arguable. Theoretically, aren’t we all working for someone else? Even the self-employed have a customer who’s tune they’ll be singing to at the end of the day.

One of my dairy industry commenters made an excellent point. What did my article really solve? Those who liked Mr. Goodman’s piece hated mine, and those who liked mine weren’t fond of his. Does it make the industry any better off? Fair enough. I can understand that entirely. But I will say this – if I could have solved all my industry’s troubles by writing an article, I would have done that a very long time ago. But sadly, the power of my pen and keypad is simply not that great. What small thing I can do, fulfilling the career I’ve been blessed with, I will do very proudly.

P.S. No, I didn’t pick the photos that accompanied the AGDAILY article 

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